The late-Classic Maya site of Uxmal ("oosh-mahl", meaning "thrice-built") in the Yucatan dates from before the 10th century AD. It is considered one of the most complex and beautiful expressions of Puuc architecture and, for many, is a major highlight of a Yucatán vacation.
Puuc means "hilly country," and is the name given to the hills nearby and the predominant style of ancient architecture found here. Puuc decoration, which abounds at Uxmal, is characterized by elaborate horizontal stonework on upper levels. Uxmal is part of the the "Puuc route" of Mayan sites, along with nearby Sayil, Kabah, Xlapak, and Labná.
The area around Uxmal was occupied as early as 800 BC, but the major building period took place when it was the capital of a Late Classic Mayan state around 850-925 AD.
After about 1000, when Toltec invaders took over the Yucatán peninsula (establishing their capital at Chichén Itza), all major construction ceased at Uxmal. But it continued to be occupied and participated in the political League of Mayapán.
Uxmal later came under the control of the Xiú princes. The site was abandoned around 1450, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
What to See
The main ruins of Uxmal cover about 150 acres, with residential districts spreading further beyond that. Uxmal occupies a grassy savannah surrounded by forest and its buildings were adapted to the varied elevations of the hilly landscape.
Unlike most Yucatan sites, Uxmal derived its not as much from cenotes (natural wells) as from man-made cisterns that collected rain water, one of which can be seen near the entrance. The constant concern with the supply of water probably explains the special popularity of the rain god Chac at Puuc sites.
The real function of many of the structures remains uncertain, and they retain the fanciful names given them by the Spanish.
At 35 m (115 ft), the massive Magician's Pyramid (Pirámide del Adivino) is the tallest structure at Uxmal. The pyramid is also known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf; both names derive from a legend about a magical dwarf who was hatched from an egg, grew to adulthood in a single day, and built this pyramid in one night. Actually, it was begun in the 6th century AD and regularly expanded through the 10th century.
The pyramid is unique among Mayan structures because of its rounded sides, height, and steepness, and the doorway on the opposite (west) side near the top. Its limestone core was originally covered with smooth plaster and painted red with accents in blue, yellow and black. Beneath the Magician's Pyramid are five earlier structures; it was common for the Mayas to build new structures on top of old ones at regular intervals.
The rich decoration on the doorway of "Temple 4," near the top, features 12 stylized masks. These are traditionally thought to represent the rain god Chac, but recent scholarship suggests they are actually "iconographic mountains," or witz (Coe, The Maya, 166). The structure at the very top, Temple 5, dates from about 1000 AD; its design may be inspired by the nearby Governor's Palace.
The Nunnery Quadrangle was given its name by the 16th-century Spanish historian Fray Diego López de Cogullado because it reminded him of a Spanish convent. It may have been a military academy or a training school for Mayan princes, who would have lived in the 74 rooms. The rooms have no interior decoration and have mostly been taken over by swallows.
The buildings of the Nunnery Quadrangle were constructed at different times: first the northern; then the southern, eastern, and western buildings. The western building has the most richly decorated facade, featuring intertwined stone snakes and numerous masks of the hook-nosed rain god Chac. Above each doorway in the the archway to the south of the Nunnery Quadrangle features the motif of a Maya cottage, or nah, which is still seen throughout the Yucatán today.
In its size and intricate stonework, the Governor's Palace rivals the Magician's Pyramid as the masterpiece of Uxmal. It's an imposing three-level edifice with a 97m (320-ft.) long mosaic facade, built in the 9th and 10th centuries.
If you stand back from the Palace on the east side, the 103 stone masks of Chac seem to slither across the facade like a serpent. They end at the corners, where there are columns of masks. In the open plaza in front of the Palace is the Jaguar Throne, carved like a two-headed jaguar, which the Mayas associated with chiefs and kings.
Fray Cogullado also gave this building its name, and he may have been more accurate this time - the Governor's Palace may have been the administrative center of the Xiú principality, which included the region around Uxmal. The Governor's Palace probably had astrological significance as well.
For years, scholars pondered why this building was constructed slightly turned from adjacent buildings. Recently scholars of archaeoastronomy (a relatively new science that studies the placement of archaeological sites in relation to the stars) discovered that the central doorway, which is larger than the others, is in perfect alignment with Venus.
Behind the Govenor's Place is a lower-level plaza with the Great Pyramid, 260 feet (79 m) on each side. The top of the pyramid has the Temple of the Macaws, three other ruined temples, and fine views.
The Turtle House is a simple rectangular building on the terrace south of the ball court. The temple is named for the frieze of small turtles in procession around the top of building. Though much smaller and less elaborate than other structures, its harmony and elegance makes it one of the gems of Uxmal.
A building called the Dovecote features roof combs, which are not commonly found in Puuc temples.
If traveling by car, there are two routes to Uxmal from Merida: Highway 261 or State Highway 18. Note that there's no gas available at Uxmal. Buses runs from Merida to Uxmal, but to see the sound and light show, you should sign up for a guided tour in Merida.
Tip: If staying the night in Uxmal, an efficient plan is to arrive late in the day, buy a ticket to see the sound-and-light show that evening, then explore the ruins the next morning before it gets hot. Make sure that the ticket vendor knows your intentions and keep the ticket.
Quick Facts on Uxmal
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|Coordinates:||20.359444° N, 89.771389° W (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of Uxmal
Below is a location map and aerial view of Uxmal. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Frommer's Mexico 2005
- Uxmal - Encyclopedia Britannica
- Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 7th ed. (Thames & Hudson, 2005), 166-69.
- Eyewitness Travel Guide to Mexico
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